Project Guard debuted at E3 2014 as part of an initiative from Nintendo to craft new experiences that could only be pulled off with the GamePad. What was then a small, weird, experimental game is now a small, weird, experimental game set in the Star Fox universe. Oh, and a pretty great — if distressing — proof of concept for GamePad excellence.
So, mission accomplished then, Nintendo.
Star Fox Guard puts players in the role of a security operator for Corneria Precious Metals, Ltd., proprietors of various mining sites across the Star Fox galaxy. The company is owned by Grippy Toad, the weird uncle of Slippy Toad, who has a pesky problem of dealing with robots that simply cannot stop attacking the labyrinthian mining facilities. It's your job to make sure they don't get through to the core and blow the whole place up. This translates into gameplay that sources equal parts tower defense, twitch shooter, and puzzle as you juggle incoming waves of foes and try to figure out how to dispatch of them.
Around the facilities are 12 AegisCams with weapons attached. The TV screen shows the feed of each numbered camera surrounding a large central display showing the camera currently under your control. On the GamePad is a map of the facility and corresponding numbered camera placements. Tap the camera on the GamePad to commandeer it in the central display on the TV, allowing you to fight back against the hordes.
The game's dozens of robot enemies are divided into two types. Chaos robots live up to their name and are here primarily to make life difficult. These suckers will mainly attack the cameras in all sorts of ways both novel and straightforward. One looks like a tank and just blasts cameras on its warpath to take them out. Another attaches to the camera and shows a fake loop to trick you into thinking nothing is happening there, just like what happens in every single heist movie. Combat robots, on the other hand, go right for the core — if one reaches it, the stage is lost.
Before each mission you can position the cameras by dragging them around the map (also possible to do on-the-fly during a stage) and equip them with whatever weapons you may have unlocked to boost your chances of a successful defense. The prep screen shows a vague idea of how many robots will be coming through each entry point, but won't clue you in to what they are or when they'll arrive. Scanning a Fox or Falco amiibo on the prep screen will offer optional air support for that stage. If you find yourself in the weeds during a stage, tapping the Arwing icon will call in the squad for an air strike and total enemy annihilation. You can use a compatible amiibo once per day (so, if you have both Fox and Falco, that makes for two air strikes).
Precious metals left behind from defeated foes are claimed at the end of each stage, which contribute to your character level. Additional camera types and abilities are unlocked as you level, which prove handy for taking on the increasingly challenging enemy waves.
Win or lose, Guard presents you with detailed info on the attack waves you just faced after each mission. This info is presented in a similar fashion to a music sequencer, with each entry point shown as a track and robots are the notes. Defeated robots will appear greyed out in the sequence, cluing you in to what you may have missed. It's all very clever, and super valuable if you're defeated since you can see exactly where you went wrong and what path that robot took to the core.
Keeping track of all 12 cameras at once is no mean feat for one person. Constantly monitoring a dozen tiny feeds for enemy activity is tricky enough, but the real wrench comes from having to divert your attention away from the TV screen and back to the GamePad quickly and often. There's a very real threat that the robot you're tracking will be out of sight of the camera you expected, which then kicks off a scramble to track it as the blasted thing gets ever closer to blowing up the facility. Throw in multiple attack points, varying threat levels, and the Chaos robots doing their thing and you'll find yourself overwhelmed in a jiffy. This inherent claustrophobic tension in Guard's gameplay is both surprising and welcome.
Comparisons to indie sensation Five Night's at Freddie's are easy as both titles have you manning a CCTV system and fighting for survival. But that's about the extent of the similarities. FNaF plays on your fear of the unknown, with the source of its tension coming from creepy sound effects and jump scares from sudden appearances when flipping between channels. Guard is cheerily up-front about incoming peril and exploits information overload to fill you with dread. All of your danger is right in front of you, 12 feeds of it, slowly — or suddenly with the quicker foes — marching right at your greatest vulnerability in broad daylight, and the only thing you can do is hope that you're quick enough to figure out how to stop it.
The main mode has 100 stages to defend, with most only lasting a few minutes to complete. Half — including boss fights and end-of-planet assaults — are part of the campaign, and the other half are unlockable "extra" missions. Unlocking all of the extra missions will take a good while, too. This may be a somewhat small game, but a little goes a long way. Guard can be a very overwhelming experience if played alone in longer sessions, which conversely makes it great for a quick round between the other things you do in life. It also happens to be a pretty fun party game with two or more people watching the monitors and screaming at each other over where robots are coming from and what to attack first. Guard will surely spawn a load of YouTube reaction videos of people stressing out over speedy blue robots.
While 100 missions is pretty meaty, we imagine many players will find the online My Squad mode to be Star Fox Guard's main course. Here, you can create custom attack waves and upload them for all to play, or defend against whatever the Internet (or friends) throws your way. Designing an attack wave is dead simple thanks to the sequencer-like creation tool that lets you set what robots will appear from where, when, in what order, as well as influence the path they take to the core. Your online bona fides are shown on a player scorecard similar to other Nintendo online games like Mario Kart 8, where you get points for winning and lose points in defeat. Between Guard and Super Mario Maker, it seems that Nintendo has cracked how to make simple and powerful creation tools that anyone can use.
Looking at screenshots, what you see of Guard's visual style doesn't look all that impressive. Its blocky style and chunky, cartoonish design lends a lovingly HD-remastered Nintendo 64 title vibe to everything. This game won't win many awards for aesthetic excellence, but the art style has two practical purposes. For one, it connects Guard to its sibling game, Star Fox Zero, which shares a similar look and feel. Second, it services gameplay by streamlining all of the information required to decipher what's going on. Three quarters of Star Fox Guard is spent looking for activity on tiny monitors — anything other than chunky, colorful, distinct designs would be not only lost on players but would make things difficult to see. The game is overwhelming enough as is, so we for one welcome this simple look. Plus, there's a lot of charm and personality fused into the character designs — this style is a net-plus in our book.
The sound design also does a great job of boosting the game's sense of personality and offering a window into what's happening on screen. Alarms go off, robots wind up, lasers go zap — all valuable information to have presented in such a clear and distinct way to help make sense of the chaos. The various Star Fox characters are fully voice acted and sound great (in that cheesy Star Fox way), with Grippy's gruff personality stealing the show. The dynamic between the young Slippy and the gruff Grippy is handled really well and proves lots of fun. We hope to see Grippy involved in future Star Fox adventures.
Nintendo set out to build an experience centered around the GamePad with Star Fox Guard, and the result is a great little experiment — if a wee bit overwhelming. How much you get out of Star Fox Guard will ultimately depend on your tolerance for its particular brand of gameplay. Some may take to the tense onslaught like an Italian plumber to a mushroom, whereas others might play a few rounds and get completely exhausted. There isn't a whole lot of diversity in gameplay here, and in many ways what you see is what you get.
What we see is a terrifying game wrapped in a charming coating with lots to do if you're so inclined. The main game is satisfying on its own, and throw in the excellent My Squad online mode and you've got yourself a party. Player beware; you're in for a scare.